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Monday, 20 November 2023

As we observed World AIDS Day, it was both a moment of reflection on  progress and a call to action for a crucial issue that still persists to this day. In Southern Africa, where HIV is the most severe globally, the battle against the virus extends beyond medical challenges and stretches to societal barriers built with judgment and fear.

In celebration of 25 years of HIV management excellence, JSE-listed AfroCentric Group’s Aid for Aids (AfA) programme has designed, developed and delivered unique and encompassing health programmes that have improved the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Maria Rambauli, AfA has been instrumental in changing the trajectory of HIV since its inception in 1998. “Our model goes beyond medical care, encompassing emotional support and coordination of all HIV care needs for individuals living with HIV. But managed care is only one aspect of this fight,” she says.

With over 13% of the South African population living with HIV, Rambauli says we face an epidemic that reaches every corner of our society, making society a contributing factor to the disease’s prevelance.

“Just to put it into perspective, in 2022 alone, an estimated 164,200 people were diagnosed HIV positive. Are they getting the treatment they need? If we look beyond the numbers, you’ll find that the pervasive stigma surrounding HIV remains a significant hurdle to effective care,” says Rambauli.

She believes HIV stigma continues to act as a formidable barrier to HIV care in South Africa. For her, the intersection of socioeconomic factors and the anticipation and expression of stigma creates a complex web that hinders prevention efforts and perpetuates the cycle of new infections.

“Fear of stigmatisation prevents people from accessing vital HIV testing, a crucial entry point for prevention services. Those who hold stigmatising beliefs about HIV may underestimate their own risk of infection, leading to a continued spread of the virus,” says Rambauli.

After 25 years of HIV patient care, Rambauli says stigma is a clear barrier to treatment. The fear of judgment discourages consistent medication adherence, increasing the risk of transmission. “One of the biggest challenges we face is perception. And what do businesses do when they face a crisis of perception? They rebrand.”

Rambauli strongly believes the time has come to rebrand HIV, reshaping public perception and dismantling the stigma that surrounds it. Drawing a parallel with the positive narrative surrounding cancer, she says it is essential to shift the conversation from fear and judgment to one of empathy, understanding, and support.

“By highlighting scientific advancements and progress in HIV research, we can inspire collective action, much like a brand seeking to build a loyal customer base through positive messaging.

AfA's commitment to being a care coordinator aligns seamlessly with the transformative narrative needed to combat stigma. “By emphasising the message that undetectable equals untransmittable, we can debunk myths, challenge stigma, and empower individuals living with HIV.

As we commemorated World AIDS Day, she says this should not be a day of remembrance but rather a day of collective action. “It is on all of us – individuals, communities, healthcare professionals, and organisations – to challenge and dismantle the stigma surrounding HIV. That is the essence of the rebranding we need.”

Together, Rambauli is adamant that we can redefine the conversation surrounding HIV and pave the way for a world that truly embodies the principles of compassion, inclusivity, and justice. “Let us collectively dismantle the stigma, foster compassion, and create a world where individuals affected by HIV can live their lives free from judgment and discrimination. It’s time to rebrand this virus together.”

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